For a man who likes his seasoning, the last few weeks have been especially pleasing. After stumbling to a 5-4 start and dropping out of the Top 25, the Utes had won 13 straight, including the defeat of BYU, leaving them as the lone unbeaten team in the WAC and ranked No. 14 in this week's poll. "I don't know what this team is yet," Majerus said. "They defend well and play well together. That's about it."
At Majerus U basketball is an advanced-placement course. Not only must all of Majerus's players master the nuances of two positions in his complex system-he has nine plays just to defend against the pick-and-roll—but they must also become fluent in his distinctive language of about 100 basketball terms. Quotidian words take on new meanings at a Utah practice: White means front on defense, as in "white the post"; sandwich means the perimeter defender sags towards the basket, creating a sandwich around the opposing big man; and butter is shouted whenever the shot clock runs down to :07.
It's little wonder, then, that so much went wrong at the start of this season. Majerus had to work eight freshmen, sophomores and junior college transfers into his system. Senior point guard Andre Miller, who was averaging 16.5 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.9 assists through Sunday, is a national player of the year candidate, but he's one of only three experienced Utes (along with 6'9" junior Alex Jensen and 6'10" junior Hanno Möttölä) who played on last year's NCAA runners-up. As of Sunday, Nate Althoff, a 6'11" sophomore, had started 19 games after playing only 91 minutes last season. Six-foot junior Jeremy Killion, another starter, was still taking a crash course in shot selection after shooting without a conscience (27.1 points a game) last year at Palomar College, a JC in San Marcos, Calif. Utah's top newcomer, 6'5" juco transfer Tony Harvey, missed nine games for academic and disciplinary reasons. But once all the Utes got with the program, they soared.
A major factor in Utah's resurgence has been Jensen's assertiveness on offense, which Majerus has been encouraging for some time. "I passed up an open shot against Arkansas last season, and Coach called a 20-second timeout," Jensen says. "He stuck out his hand and said, real sarcastically, 'Congratulations, Alex, you just won the Mr. Sportsmanship award for passing up an open shot' I didn't know what to do. So I shook his hand." Majerus has reiterated the message this season, at one point writing JENSEN—TAKE TWO BAD SHOTS A GAME on the grease-board in Utah's locker room.
Jensen has learned his lesson. He got the first triple double by a Utah player in the Utes' 30-year-old Huntsman Center, against Fresno State on Jan. 25. He added 14 points and 13 rebounds in a 57-39 win over then No. 17 New Mexico in Albuquerque last week.
"It's kind of surprising we're doing this well," Jensen says. "I knew we had the potential to be good, but I didn't think it would happen so soon."
Louisville's NCAA Reprieve
These Cards Were Lucky
That sound you may have heard emanating from Louisville last Friday was a collective sigh of relief as the NCAA vacated a postseason ban on the Cardinals. The odor you may have detected, however, was the fishiness of the decision.
The particulars: In November 1996 Louisville was placed on probation for two years after an NCAA investigation found that a booster had provided two vehicles to star center Samaki Walker in '95. Before that probation was even announced, however, another violation occurred. In mid-September '96 assistant coach Scooter McCray negotiated a discounted hotel room rate for the father of forward Nate Johnson, and later McCray guaranteed payment for the room on his credit card. For those transgressions the NCAA infractions committee—overruling the finding of its own investigator that the violations were so-called secondary ones—announced in September '98 that the Cards were guilty of further major violations and banned them from postseason play this year, among other sanctions.
Now, in an unprecedented reversal, the NCAA's infractions appeals committee has lifted the postseason ban, agreeing with the attorney for Louisville, Mike Glazier, that the school had been denied the chance to argue that the later violations weren't major. As a result, a program deemed by an NCAA committee to have committed several major violations in the span of two years will have the opportunity to earn seven figures in the 1999 tournament.